Holistic Admissions: Your Child Is More Than Their Grades and Test Scores

holistic admissions

Holistic Admissions: Your Child Is More Than Their Grades and Test Scores

Published January 12, 2021 | Last Updated September 10th, 2023 at 11:33 am

holistic admissions

What Are Holistic Admissions?

Applying to college can be one of the most stressful times of your child’s life, and likely yours as well. From test scores to deciding what courses to take junior and senior year, it is very clear that academics matter greatly.

However, academics are not everything. Increasingly, colleges and universities are moving away from seeing applicants only as test scores and grade point averages (GPA). Instead, holistic admissions are becoming the norm.

Holistic admissions allows colleges to consider a potential student for everything they can offer. It’s not just about grades or extracurriculars; instead, holistic admissions also looks at outside factors that could have impacted a GPA or test scores. For many applicants, it can provide admissions counselors a more thorough understanding of what applicants could offer to a university.

What Is Holistic Application Review?

Simply put, a holistic application review means looking beyond test scores and grades and then weighing all the factors together. This is in stark contrast to the typical way most American universities used to evaluate applicants, where academic performance alone determined admission. A list of extracurricular activities may have been requested, but they were more of a way to assess leadership qualities rather than to truly get to know a student.

Colleges are now shifting to understand the life experiences that help mold students.

Two students may both have a 3.5 GPA, but if one student has earned that GPA while working to help support her family, while volunteering each week at a homeless shelter, or while starting a business or creating an app, it tells a much deeper story about the time management skills and abilities of the applicant.

That sort of knowledge can inform whether or not a student is going to be successful at college.

Many students do see a GPA dip as they go into college compared to their high school grades, but those who are more resilient, and have a demonstrated drive to be at a particular school typically do better.

Holistic Review Admissions Process

In the past, a university would evaluate potential students rather quickly. They would check the applicant’s GPA and SAT or ACT score, look for any reason not to admit them in the personal statement or letters of recommendation, and go from there.

If a student’s numbers weren’t up to par, they might look for a reason to admit them in the supporting documents, but extracurriculars and life experiences weren’t enough to tip the decision.

Now it’s quite different.

A number of readers review each application, weighing factors that are both academic and non-academic, as well as objective and subjective. This makes personal statements, interviews, and any other interaction with the admissions committee vital.

At the end of the process, the admissions committee has a good handle on who an applicant is and can determine whether they will be successful and an asset to the campus community…

Grades Still Matter

While grades and test scores are only one factor in holistic admissions, they are still vital. For example, only in very rare circumstances would someone with a 2.0 GPA get into a top-ranked school with full aid; holistic admissions is not an excuse to slack off.

Instead, think of it as a chance for your child to take some risks.

Demonstrating intellectual curiosity by taking more Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, and showing that knowledge with subject-based tests like AP, IB, or SAT Subject Exams is more desirable than straight As in general courses.

While grades and test scores matter a little less under a holistic review, they still matter, and can help to differentiate your child from the pack.

Why Understanding Holistic Review Helps Your Child

Having a firm understanding of holistic review’s meaning can help your child make the best possible case for getting into their desired college.

Think of the personal statement as an opportunity for your child to explain how their life experiences, including but not limited to grades and test scores, have led them to the decision to apply to a specific school.

Encourage them to show how they will fit in at a given university; while it may be more work, their essay will be focused and specific, making it stand out to college admissions.

Colleges like to award merit aid to students who are more likely to actually attend the university and accept it.

Under holistic review, it’s important for your child to make a compelling case that this is the specific college for them; it can also help them gain more scholarships and other merit-based aid.

Factors in Holistic Admissions

  • A strong academic record including GPA and a rigorous course load
  • Glowing letters of recommendations from teachers, coaches or mentors
  • Interesting extracurriculars including leadership and long-term commitment 
  • Application essays including all supplemental essays tailored to individual universities
  • Demonstrated interest including campus visits, early application, and thoughtful essays
  • A strong interview, which your child should take part in even if it’s optional 
  • Diversity and legacy status, which your child has little control over

List of Colleges with Holistic Admissions

A number of schools use holistic college admissions, and the numbers are growing.

  •  Some schools view it as a way to make sure that they are attracting students who really want to attend their university. 
  • Others view it as a way to counteract differences in high schools, making holistic admissions especially useful during the pandemic. The 2020-21 admission cycle will be the most important for holistic admissions ever. 
  • Still other schools think of it as a way to ensure more diversity in the student body. 

No matter what the reason, plenty of universities use holistic admissions.

Practically every liberal arts college (LAC) relies on a holistic review of applications, because they pride themselves on building a cohesive class, not just accepting qualified students blindly. This includes hundreds of colleges across the country, ranging from elite LACs like Williams and Hamilton to lesser-known schools like St. John’s College and Berea. 

Additionally, much larger institutions also rely on holistic reviews, although to different degrees. While the University of Texas uses a formula to automatically admit top students from high schools throughout Texas, it also offers holistic review for those who don’t meet the numbers-based bar. 

While it might not be practical for Texas to use holistic admissions for every student, other universities thrive using the practice.

The University of California, Berkeley, one of the most competitive public universities in the country, prides itself on having pioneered the idea of holistic admissions in the University of California system.

In fact, Berkeley is an example of how holistic review does not automatically equate to an easier acceptance. Berkeley is not alone in being an elite university that uses holistic admissions—the entire Ivy League does as well.

Now more than ever, with high schools adapting to keep up with public health demands, college admissions committees know that all GPAs are not equal, and that test scores are not always available.

Holistic admissions offers a chance for students to offer the most complete profile of themselves, and to allow college admissions counselors to make as informed of a decision as possible.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

The School Profile: How Colleges Use It in Admissions, What’s Included, and Tips

A Mother’s Guide: Transforming College Admissions Into Bonding Time

Parents Share the Worst Parts of the College Admissions Process




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